SACRAMENTO, Calif., Aug. 1 (CNS)--Catholic Charities of Sacramento has filed suit to block a state law that includes most religious institutions in a requirement that employers pay for contraceptives in prescription insurance plans.

The suit filed in Sacramento Superior Court July 21 argues that the law, which took effect January 1, violates the California Constitution as well as the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It asks the court to declare the law unconstitutional and to impose a permanent injunction barring its enforcement.

The law requires all employers in the state that provide workers with insurance for prescriptions to include contraceptives among covered pharmaceuticals. It is written so that insurance companies are held responsible for including contraceptives in employer policies.

The law's "conscience clause" allows organizations that fit a narrow definition of "religious employer" to be exempted from the requirement. But Catholic Charities and many other of the state's church-affiliated institutions do not qualify for the exemption, the lawsuit notes.

The exemption applies to employers that meet four criteria. They include:

-- The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the entity.

-- The entity primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets.

-- The entity primarily serves people who share its religious tenets.

-- The entity is classified as a nonprofit organization under the Internal Revenue Code.

Catholic Charities fails to meet those requirements in several ways. Its primary purpose, notes the lawsuit, is not to inculcate church doctrine, but to provide social services for the poor, immigrants, the elderly, and disabled. Most of its clients and most of its employees are not Catholic.

The California Catholic Conference, which represents the state's bishops in legislative matters, issued a statement saying the contraceptive insurance law "constitutes an extraordinarily serious threat to the religious freedom rights of the Roman Catholic Church in California."

"If allowed to stand as law, they would set forth a precedent whereby the state defined what could or could not constitute what is or is not part of a church," the conference said. "It additionally would allow the state to define a church's mission and force members of a church to engage in behavior that runs counter to church teachings."

The Catholic conference's background statement said the law's exemption clause was designed to exclude specific Catholic ministries, particularly its health care, social service and educational programs.

"This new definition of `religious employer' is an unprecedented attempt by the state to define `religion' and impose its own definition as to those activities the state regards as `religious' and those it regards as `secular,"' it said.

California is one of several dozen states that have considered or passed similar laws in the last two years.

Some of the laws, such as Maryland's, include conscience clauses that the state's Catholic conference and other church organizations find acceptable. They allow religious institutions, with a broad definition of what constitutes a religious entity, to be excluded from providing coverage for things that conflict with the teachings of the faith.

The California Catholic Conference notes that should the law be allowed to stand, the anticipated approval by the Food and Drug Administration of the abortifacient RU-486 would force Catholic institutions to choose between covering an abortion-inducing drug or canceling all prescription coverage for employees.

Similar arguments were made by the Catholic Conference of the District of Columbia this summer when the city approved a bill on contraceptive coverage without a conscience clause. Mayor Anthony Williams decided to let that bill lapse without his signature.

But Congress also has stepped into the fray, with the House passing an amendment to the District's federally approved budget that would negate the law if it had been signed. Another provision of the House amendment would prevent the city from passing another such bill without a broad conscience clause.

California's Legislature had been trying since 1994 to pass a mandatory contraceptive-coverage law before the current one was passed last year. The state's Catholic conference and the California Association of Catholic Healthcare were both active in trying to include a conscience clause that met their needs, and, in fact, had approved of such clauses in earlier, failed versions of the legislation.

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